I had been travelling for more than ten years – in Europe, Asia and Africa – and it had not occurred to me to write a travel book. I had always somewhat disliked travel books: they seemed self-indulgent, unfunny and rather selective. I had an idea that the travel writer left a great deal out of his books and put the wrong things in. I hated sightseeing, yet sightseeing constituted much of the travel writer’s material: the pyramids, the Taj Mahal, the Vatican, the paintings here, the mosaics there. In an age of mass tourism, everyone set off to see the same things, and that was what travel writing seemed to be about. I am speaking of the early 1970s.

The travel book was a bore. A bore wrote it and bores read it. It annoyed me that a traveller would suppress the moments of desperation or fear or lust, the details of meals, the names of books read to kill time, the condition of toilets. I had done enough travelling to know that half of it was delay or nuisance – buses breaking down and hotel clerks being rude and market traders being rapacious. The truth of travel was interesting and off-key, and few people ever wrote about it.

Now and then one would read the truth: Evelyn Waugh being mistaken for his brother Alec in Labels; or Naipaul’s good intentions and bad temper in parts of An Area of Darkness; or in a fragment like the following from Anthony Trollope’s The West Indies and the Spanish Main.


A Childhood in Broadmoor Hospital
Scene of the Crime